Our Australian Girl is referred to affectionately in the Penguin office as OAG – or, in times of mild stress and chaos, OMG. After all, it’s a big series with lots of elements, and sometimes it can be a little daunting to execute in an ‘oh my goodness’ kind of way. But Sunday 17th March was an OMG moment for another reason – one that was more about awe and excitement than hands plastered to foreheads in panic.
The launch of our two new OAG characters, Ruby by Penny Matthews and Lina by Sally Rippin, gave us an excuse to throw a garden party for fans to celebrate the success of the series, which stands at 26 books and over 200,000 copies sold. From the gorgeous emails we receive from fans, parents, teachers and booksellers, we had an inkling that OAG readers are enthusiastic. But we were still completely unprepared for the crush of Sunday-afternoon revelers who poured into St Heliers Store at the Abbotsford Convent.
It was a rainy day and we suffered the usual pre-match paranoia about whether anyone would bother to show. And yet, while we were still hanging the bunting and arranging the hundred cupcakes, the crowds quickly swelled until it was jostling room only. It seemed that in every corner of the space, momentous things were happening. By the bookselling table, Penny Matthews was meeting the face on the cover of the Ruby books – the gorgeous, smiling, real-life Ruby. In front of the fruit platters, Sofie Laguna had a signing queue that stretched around to the table where fans were entering the competition to win their own OAG charm bracelet.
Future OAG author Michelle Hamer (whose Depression-era Daisy books will be out next year) was chatting with Poppy author, Gabi Wang, who is writing another set of OAGs about Pearlie, a girl in Darwin in World War Two. The series illustrator, Lucia Masciullo, was meeting Letty author, Alison Lloyd, for the first time. Publisher Jane Godwin was recovering from the shock of reuniting with the cover girls Grace and Rose books – now leggy, sophisticated Year 8s. The Readings table was doing a roaring trade, as fans added Meet Ruby and Meet Lina to their collections.
Looking around, it seemed that our deepest wishes for the series had come true. Sure, we had always hoped to bring Australia’s history to life and celebrate the diversity of our heritage. We’d dreamed about helping young people form a strong and resilient sense of what it means to be Australian – something richer than an empty three-syllable chant or a Southern Cross tattoo. We’d reacted strongly against the focus on materialism and image that seemed to be infiltrating our tween entertainment options.
But our biggest aim had been to provide meaningful, memorable stories for OAG readers – ones with characters they’d come to know as friends, and values they could, we hoped, internalise: strength and courage, passion and fortitude, a sense of possibility, and a desire to do what is right and good. Above all, we just wanted to provide girls with the joy, space and comfort that comes when you connect with a story you love. In the ultimate OMG moment, all around us, in a noisy, happy throng of shining young faces, we had evidence that we had succeeded – and then some.
When the formalities began with a ceremonial glass clink, Sally and Penny talked about the stories behind their characters and the characters behind their stories, and Lucia charmed us with an account of her journey from Italy to become a new Australian girl. The cover girls came to the front, and all past and present authors were clapped and cheered.
And at that moment, I realised that we’d actually created something we’d only dreamed of when the series began. It was a feeling of community and female legacy: the sense that we’re giving a new generation an idea of what it has meant and now means to be an Australian girl, with all the hardships, challenges and opportunities enfolded in that responsibility. By connecting readers to the past, it felt that afternoon as if we were building a stronger future. The cupcakes were pretty delicious, too.
Over two years ago I had a meeting in the Penguin offices in Camberwell to talk about my idea for a future Our Australian Girl. Jane Godwin and Davina Bell sat me down at a small round table and talked to me about the series. Let me tell you now, it was like watching a mixture of a comedy duo and an old couple who have lived together for forty years. They were so delightful, so funny, shared so much affection, passion and enthusiasm for each other and this series, that instantly I knew I desperately wanted to work with them. The good news is that two years on and three, nearly four manuscripts later, this feeling still remains. I would be hard pressed to find an editorial team I have enjoyed working with more than JG and DB.
The next person I would like to thank is the inspiration behind all the Lina stories. There is a black and white photo by my bed of a big Italian family, three generations, in their best clothes, looking earnestly towards the camera. In his mother’s arms is a chubby baby in a hand-knitted jumper, his curly black hair lovingly brushed into an Elvis-style quiff. Many people in that photo are gone now, including, sadly, the mother holding the baby who is all grown up now and has a son of his own. The Lina books are dedicated to him, my partner, Raffaele, and are in memory of his mother, Nonna Guiseppina. He is the source of many of these stories, my first reader and my expert on all things Italian. Without him these stories wouldn’t exist. So, thank you, mio caro, I am lucky to have you.
Other people have shared their stories with me, too, some of them here today, like my friend Carmel Hyland’s delightful mother-in-law, Sofia, who took me into her kitchen and told me beautiful stories of her early years here in Melbourne over tea and biscuits.
My mother, who is the same age Lina would be now if she were a real person, is also a constant source of inspiration, even though the Adelaide suburb she grew up in was a world away from multicultural Carlton. To the extent that when one of her father’s friends married an Italian woman it shocked the whole neighbourhood. ‘Have you smelt that cheese she uses?’ my grandmother and her friends would whisper disapprovingly among themselves. ‘It smells like vomit!’
‘And she’s so loud, so flamboyant, so… different!’
All qualities my mother has since encouraged me to be.
Last of all, but most importantly, I want to thank every single one of my young readers. Some of you I recognize, some of you I will meet for the first time today, but I want you to know that with every word I write I have you in mind. You are the reason I love what I do and that I am able to do what I love. You make me want to be the best writer I can be and I will always try my hardest to please you. So thank you, thank you, for without you I would probably still be waitressing.
Penny Matthews’ Speech
One of the most exciting things, when you begin to write a story, is the mysterious process of finding your characters. Often they seem to come almost from nowhere, and they develop pretty much of their own accord. Soon they dominate much of your life. After a while you start to dream about them.
Nellie O’Neill, in the Nellie books, was exactly this sort of spontaneous character. I scarcely had to look for her. She was there right from the start, firmly defined by her Irish nationality and by her tragic historical circumstances. She was hopeful and sweet and funny, and she spoke with a lovely brogue. I felt that I knew and understood her straight away.
Ruby Quinlan was a different matter. Initially there was nothing much to define her. She didn’t come from the fascinating period of shawls and bonnets, but from 1930, a recognisably modern time when people generally lived more or less as they do now. At first Ruby refused to speak to me. When at last I found her voice, I had to drag her into her story kicking and screaming.
Ruby isn’t a poor Irish orphan working as a domestic servant, but a thoroughly middle-class child. In Meet Ruby she lives in a big, comfortable suburban Adelaide house with electricity and a proper bathroom. She goes to a private girls’ school, and her friends and teachers wouldn’t seem too out-of-place in a similar school today. Her father has a luxurious new car, and she herself has just been given a top-of-the-range camera for her birthday. She has never had to struggle for anything in her life.
I knew some very basic things about Ruby. I knew she loved clothes, and parties, and going to the movies. I knew she adored her father and her little dog, Baxter, and she longed for a proper best friend. Yes, she was a bit self-centred, but she was far too generous and warm-hearted to be a brat. I latched on to that warm-heartedness in her character, and by the time I’d written a couple of chapters I was starting to be extremely fond of her. And besides, I knew she was in for a rough time, so I could afford to indulge her a little in the first book. At the start of Meet Ruby, she has never heard of the Great Depression. The real world will catch up with her very soon.
It is a particular pleasure for me to have the Ruby series launched here in Melbourne. My mother was a Melbourne girl, and in some ways Ruby’s story is her story too. When she and my father married, Mum left her comfortable South Yarra home for country South Australia and a man whose pay was ten shillings a week and his boots. Her new home was a tiny, isolated cottage without mains water or electricity. For Mum the culture shock must have been profound. Her trousseau contained cutwork linen tablecloths and crepe de chine nighties, things that must have seemed quite incongruous in her new life. After her death I found the ragged remains of those beautiful silk nighties carefully wrapped in tissue paper. She had worn them until they literally fell to bits.
Coming to grips with dramatic changes in fortune can be wonderfully character-forming, and my mother’s character was remarkable in every way. She had plenty of courage and determination, and she worked hard to fit into her new life. My Ruby is a toughie, too. I know that, like my mother, she’s going to make it.
Ruby would never have become an Australian girl without the help of the Our Australian Girl team. These books are very much a combined effort, and it’s not too much to say that they are a labour of love.
First of all, I must thank Jane Godwin for being my publisher, my ever-reliable critic and sounding board, and my friend.
Thank you to my editor, Michelle Madden, for her patience and skill, and her unfailing good humour. Thank you to Davina Bell for her help, her intimate understanding of the series, and her total commitment to its success.
I thank also Lucia Masciullo for the beautiful, delicate artwork which adds so much to the look and feel of the series. And the books owe their distinctive cover design to the talent of Evi Oetomo, another essential member of the team. Speaking of covers, I must not forget to thank the real Ruby, Ruby Mills, whose portrait appears on the covers of all the Ruby books. She is the perfect image for her fictional namesake, and I see her in my mind as I write.
I must record my gratitude to my family. My daughter Alison and my little granddaughter Imogen are here today, and their presence has helped immeasurably to make this a memorable occasion for me. My son Philip is at present in Brisbane, but I like to think he’s here in spirit. Although he isn’t here today either, my husband Gordon has kept me going in every possible way, and is the still and reliable point around which everything revolves. I can’t thank him enough for what he has done and continues to do, to smooth the path for me. And I am deeply grateful to my cousin Viv Kelly, who as a writer herself is a constant source of empathy and encouragement.
Finally, I acknowledge all the talented and creative Australian Girl writers. I am honoured to be included in the series with you. Thank you all.
Book 2 in the stories of Ruby and Lina will be in shops in May. See ouraustraliangirl.com.au for exciting ideas about how you can incorporate the OAG books into your classroom.